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Wind Power Siting Presents Opportunities and Obstacles

May 2011

(Washington, DC) — The Environmental Law Institute has released two new studies of wind power siting that examine and make recommendations on how state and local governments should go about siting and permitting large new wind facilities.

One study reviews the critical role of local governments in wind power development and proposes model standards to improve local decision making on environmental and safety siting issues.

The second study explores how states can manage state-owned lands and waters to provide opportunities for commercial scale wind power facilities to help meet state renewable power goals and generate revenue. The report recommends that states inventory their holdings to identify good sites and avoid development in areas providing important habitats.

Wind power currently provides less than 2 percent of the nation?s electric power, but the U.S. Department of Energy plans for an increase to 20 percent within the next 20 years. Wind energy is a growing industry sector with the potential to transform much of the nation?s industrial and energy economy, while avoiding harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, commercial-scale wind projects pose new challenges on land and water, and state, federal, and local governments are climbing a steep learning curve as they consider proposals for new facilities. These challenges include regulating facilities spread across large areas within municipalities, protecting wildlife, scenic resources, and protecting the interests of neighboring residents.

The first study, State Enabling Legislation for Commercial-Scale Wind Power Siting and the Local Government Role, reveals that local governments play a major role in siting decisions in 48 of the 50 states. Even in states with state siting boards and commissions, local government regulations and land use decisions can affect the feasibility of wind power projects. ELI researchers found that states can, but often have not, defined the scope and limits to local government siting regulations, and that state standards can assist in assuring that the relevant environmental and safety issues are properly addressed.

Study leader James McElfish says “because so many local governments have the power to block wind power facilities, it is critical for states to set helpful standards and siting conditions, or provide good models for local regulation. Siting is one of the most contentious and least well understood areas of wind power development in the public policy context.”

ELI reviewed all of the state-defined wind siting laws and regulations, as well as the standards set out in the 13 states with state-wide “model” ordinances for local governments, in order to define a current state-of-the-art for siting regulation. Based on the state laws and these models, the study gives detailed standards on 10 core subjects ranging from zoning to setbacks from buildings to wildlife protection. It also provides model state legislation to assist legislators seeking to define the scope of regulation for wind power siting, based on laws already enacted in other states.

The second study, Siting Wind Facilities on State-Owned Lands and Waters, examines opportunities that states have explored for siting commercial-scale wind facilities on lands and waters that are government-owned. State trust lands and forests and the beds of rivers and the Great Lakes offer potential opportunities for wind power that can help advance state renewable energy goals. States own large parcels that may facilitate siting commercial-scale facilities; they also control lands that may be intermingled with private or federal lands suitable for wind development. And states are the stewards of submerged lands, and hence are essential players for siting on the Great Lakes or near shore ocean waters. Leases of state lands for wind power may provide revenue to state treasuries.

ELI found that 10 western states hav